Biography of Wilfred Owen, a Poet in Wartime

A portrait of Wilfred Owen

 Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Wilfred Owen (March 18, 1893—Nov. 4, 1918) was a compassionate poet who's work provides the finest description and critique of the soldier's experience during World War One. He was killed towards the end of the conflict in Ors, France. 

Wilfred Owen's Youth

Wilfred Owen was born to an apparently wealthy family; however, within two years his grandfather died on the verge of bankruptcy and, missing his support, the family were forced into poorer housing at Birkenhead. This fallen status left a permanent impression on Wilfred's mother, and it may have combined with her staunch piety to produce a child who was sensible, serious, and who struggled to equate his wartime experiences with Christian teachings. Owen studied well at schools in Birkenhead and, after another family move, Shrewsbury—where he even helped to teach—but he failed the University of London's entrance exam. Consequently, Wilfred became lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden—an Oxfordshire parish—under an arrangement designed so the vicar would tutor Owen for another attempt at University.

Early Poetry

Although commentators differ as to whether Owen started writing at the age 10/11 or 17, he was certainly producing poems during his time at Dunsden; conversely, the experts agree that Owen favored literature, as well as Botany, at school, and that his main poetic influence was Keats. The Dunsden poems exhibit the compassionate awareness so characteristic of Wilfred Owen's later war poetry, and the young poet found considerable material in the poverty and death he observed working for the church. Indeed, Wilfred Owen's written 'compassion' was often very close to morbidity.

Mental Problems

Wilfred's service in Dunsden may have made him more aware of the poor and less fortunate, but it didn't encourage a fondness for the church: away from his mother's influence he became critical of evangelical religion and intent on a different career, that of literature. Such thoughts led to a difficult and troubled period during January 1913, when Wilfred and Dunsden's vicar appear to have argued, and - or because perhaps as a result of - Owen suffered a near nervous breakdown. He left the parish, spending the following summer recovering.


During this period of relaxation Wilfred Owen wrote what critics often label his first 'war-poem' - 'Uriconium, an Ode' - after visiting an archaeological dig. The remains were Roman, and Owen described ancient combat with especial reference to the bodies he observed being unearthed. However, he failed to gain a scholarship to university and so left England, traveling to the continent and a position teaching English at the Berlitz school in Bordeaux. Owen was to remain in France for over two years, during which time he began a collection of poetry: it was never published.

1915—Wilfred Owen Enlists in the Army

Although war seized Europe in 1914, it was only in 1915 that Owen considered the conflict to have expanded so considerably that he was needed by his country, whereupon he returned to Shrewsbury in September 1915, training as a private at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. Unlike many of the war's early recruits, the delay meant Owen was partly aware of the conflict he was entering, having visited a hospital for the wounded and having seen the carnage of modern warfare first-hand; however he still felt removed from events.

Owen moved to the Officer's school in Essex during the March of 1916 before joining the Manchester Regiment in June, where he was graded '1st Class Shot' on a special course. An application to the Royal Flying Corps was rejected, and on December 30th 1916, Wilfred traveled to France, joining the 2nd Manchesters on January 12th 1917. They were positioned near Beaumont Hamel, on the Somme.

Wilfred Owen Sees Combat

Wilfred's own letters describe the following few days better than any writer or historian could hope to manage, but it is sufficient to say Owen and his men held a forward 'position', a muddy, flooded dug-out, for fifty hours as an artillery and shells raged around them. Having survived this, Owen remained active with the Manchesters, nearly getting frost bite in late January, suffering concussion in March—he fell through shell-damaged land into a cellar at Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, earning him a trip behind the lines to hospital—and fighting in bitter combat at St. Quentin a few weeks later.

Shell Shock at Craiglockhart

It was after this latter battle, when Owen was caught in an explosion, that soldiers reported him acting rather strangely; he was diagnosed as having shell-shock and sent back to England for treatment in May. Owen arrived at the, now famous, Craiglockhart War Hospital on June 26th, an establishment sited outside Edinburgh. Over the next few months Wilfred wrote some of his finest poetry, the result of several stimuli. Owen's doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged his patient to overcome shell-shock by working hard at his poetry and editing The Hydra, Craiglockhart's magazine. Meanwhile, Owen met another patient, Siegfried Sassoon, an established poet whose recently published war work inspired Wilfred and whose encouragement guided him; the exact debt owed by Owen to Sassoon is unclear, but the former certainly improved far beyond the latter's talents.

Owen's War Poetry

In addition, Owen was exposed to the cloyingly sentimental writing and attitude of non-combatants who glorified the war, an attitude to which Wilfred reacted with fury. Further fueled by nightmares of his wartime experiences, Owen wrote classics like 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', rich and multi-layered works characterized by a brutal honesty and deep compassion for the soldiers/victims, many of which were direct ripostes to other authors.

It's important to note that Wilfred wasn't a simple pacifist—indeed, on occasions he railed against them—but a man sensitive to the burden of soldiery. Owen may have been self-important before the war—as betrayed by his letters home from France— but there is no self-pity in his war work.

Owen Continues to Write While in the Reserves

Despite a low number of publications, Owen's poetry was now attracting attention, prompting supporters to request non-combat positions on his behalf, but these requests were turned down. It's questionable as to whether Wilfred would have accepted them: his letters reveal a sense of obligation, that he had to do his duty as poet and observe the conflict in person, a feeling exacerbated by Sassoon's renewed injuries and return from the front. Only by fighting could Owen earn respect, or escape the easy slurs of cowardice, and only a proud war-record would protect him from detractors.

Owen Returns to the Front and Is Killed

Owen was back in France by September—again as a company commander—and on September 29th he captured a machine gun position during an attack on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. After his battalion was rested in early October Owen saw in action again, his unit operating around the Oise-Sambre canal. Early in the morning of November 4th Owen led an attempt to cross the canal; he was struck and killed by enemy fire.


Owen's death was followed by one of World War One's most iconic stories: when the telegram reporting his demise was delivered to his parents, the local church bells could be heard ringing in celebration of the armistice. A collection of Owen's poems was soon created by Sassoon, although the numerous different versions, and the attendant difficulty in working out which were Owen's drafts and which were his preferred edits, led to two new editions in the early 1920's. The definitive edition of Wilfred's work may well be Jon Stallworthy's Complete Poems and Fragments from 1983, but all justify Owen's long-lasting acclaim.

The War Poetry

The poetry is not for everyone, for within Owen combines graphic descriptions of trench life—gas, lice, mud, death—with an absence of glorification; dominant themes include the return of bodies to the earth, hell and the underworld. Wilfred Owen's poetry is remembered as reflecting the real life of the soldier, although critics and historians argue over whether he was overwhelming honest or overly scared by his experiences.

He was certainly 'compassionate,' a word repeated throughout this biography and texts on Owen in general, and works like 'Disabled', focusing on the motives and thoughts of soldiers themselves, provide ample illustration of why. Owen's poetry is certainly free of the bitterness present in several historians' monographs on the conflict, and he is generally acknowledged as being the both the most successful, and best, poet of war's reality. The reason why may be found in the 'preface' to his poetry, of which a drafted fragment was found after Owen's death: "Yet these elegies are not to this generation, this is in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." (Wilfred Owen, 'Preface')

Notable Family of Wilfred Owen

  • Father: Tom Owen
  • Mother: Susan Owen
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Wilde, Robert. "Biography of Wilfred Owen, a Poet in Wartime." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Biography of Wilfred Owen, a Poet in Wartime. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Biography of Wilfred Owen, a Poet in Wartime." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).